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by Meg Grzeskiewicz, On Pasture
Strong, written contracts can prevent some of the Boneheaded Business Blunders I made in my early years of ranching. My previous two articles have covered every brutally specific detail that I should have included in my former land lease contracts. This month I’m running down everything that needs to be in a custom grazing contract.
In the past I have made contracts too short and simple, in an effort to avoid overwhelming potential partners. I wanted them to think that working with me would be stress-free and easy. But in the years that followed, those contracts proved ineffective at solving disputes and protecting us from one another. Now I don’t hesitate to hand people 5-page contracts. The kind of people I want to work with will welcome the security of a strong contract and respect me for making sure my bases are covered.
These are just my thoughts and I am not a lawyer.
Before signing a lease contract, you should have your lawyer look it over and ask them if you have forgotten anything important! The legal fees are worth avoiding potentially expensive future issues. If you have not worked with an agricultural lawyer up to this point, definitely make contact with one. Using other people’s land and/or caring for other people’s livestock is legally risky! Even if you think you’re getting along really well with your potential partner right now, and you trust them to be fair to you, a lot can change over the length of a multi-year contract.
My custom grazing contract starts out with an introduction that includes an effective date for the contract, and the names and contact information for both parties (individuals or legal entities). It states that the Grazier, as an independent contractor, will utilize land that they lease or own to graze and care for cattle owned by the Owner.
1. Terms of the Agreement – Starting, Duration and Ending
My contract begins on the delivery date of the Owner’s cattle to the Grazier’s land and remains valid for one year from that date. You can change this to whatever length of time that you want. Some contracts just continue until someone decides to terminate it. This is nice for flexibility reasons, but it’s hard to make future plans for your business if your source of income could simply disappear at any time.
For a custom grazing contract, I like a one-year or one growing season deal that can be renewed annually. Land leases need to be a little longer, because it takes a lot more time and work to switch farms than it does to buy or sell or move livestock. You need more security when it comes to your land base, so I prefer a 3-year land lease.
If you’re starting a new deal with a new partner, be careful about committing for too long a term. If they turn out to be a nightmare to work with, or if you realize you need to switch gears in your operation, you don’t want to be trapped for another five years.
The contract must state procedures for renewal or termination. I require a written renewal to be signed no less than 90 days before the end of the current contract, or it will terminate at the end of the current term. This gives me time to make plans for switching groups of cattle, managing cash flow, and making new deals.
See 1.5 in this section? The contract includes, as an appendix, a listing of ear tag numbers for each animal of the Owner’s that is on the Grazier’s land. Any time animals are born, delivered or removed, this listing must be updated within 30 days.
Why this extra detail? I heard of a case a few years ago in which a dishonest custom grazier was secretly taking an owner’s cattle to the sale barn and pocketing the money. The owner caught on when a significant number of cattle in his inventory records could not be located.
Herd inventory is especially important with large herds. Putting color, age, sex, breed and other distinguishing traits on the listing helps ensure that no switching of ear tags takes place. Theft and fraud can also be combatted by requiring proof when a grazier reports an animal as dead. The owner can either require a photograph showing the ear tag or may elect to visit the grazier to inspect the carcass.
Here’s my compensation language:
The owner will be responsible for paying the grazier:
Husbandry fees of $1.25 per head per day (a “head” being defined as a bovine over one year of age) on days when no hay is fed, and $1.00 per head per day on days when hay is fed. The owner must also reimburse the Grazier for all direct livestock expenses, which include but aren’t limited to hay, hay transport, mineral, salt, ear tags, medication, veterinary bills, livestock trucking, breeding expenses and pregnancy checks.
The Owner must ensure that the Grazier receives the full balance of the outstanding bill within 15 days after receiving an invoice from the Grazier. If/when the contract is terminated, the Owner must remove all livestock prior to the last day of the contract.
Insurance is another important topic. The Grazier needs to have a general liability policy, and needs to list the Owner as an additional insured party. The Grazier does not provide livestock insurance on the Owner’s cattle. If the Owner wants livestock loss coverage, they must purchase their own. Both parties need to make sure that their insurance agents understand the deal and are able to provide effective coverage.
4. Liability and Risk of Loss
This section is about making sure the Owner knows about problems with stock. Specify what kind of communication are acceptable for “giving notice” of things required in the contract. Is texting or e-mail okay, or does written notice have to be mailed? Do verbal phone agreements stand, or must everything be written? I definitely recommend that everything be recorded in some written form. I save text messages, Facebook messages and e-mails from my contract partners. Not doing this in the past has caused me monumental headaches in “he said she said” situations.
Rights and Responsibilities
This part of the contract outlines what each party agrees to do as part of the contract. The first paragraph in this section is important because it provides an “escape clause” should one of the parties not hold up his/her end of the bargain.
5. Owner’s responsibilities
The primary responsibility of the owner is to promptly pay invoices.
6. Owner’s Rights
With responsibilities come rights. In my contract I’ve listed the owner’s right to visit the property where livestock are housed to make sure that the grazier is in compliance with the terms of the contract.
7. Grazier Responsibilities
The Grazier has a long list of responsibilities to fulfill primarily based on the management section. Check out my sample contract to see what I include.
Not that in 7.12 I include the kinds of records I will keep, including grazing charts, medical records and herd records. Be sure you are clear on what kinds of records must be kept to avoid any disagreements.
8. Livestock Management
I start by being clear that the Grazier has the right to make all livestock management decisions. This is another really important statement! Graziers should cooperate with Owners to decide on production practices that both parties are happy with, but not let the Owner dictate how the Grazier’s farm or business is run. That would make it more of a partnership or boss-employee relationship. The Grazier must have the ability to change management practices at any time whenever needed.
Next in this section, I lay out specifically how the cattle on my operation will be managed, and state that my adherence to these practices cannot be interpreted as negligence and cannot be considered grounds for termination of the contract. I describe my practices and rules for things like castration, breeding, antibiotic use, grazing, diet, calving, night checks, culling, and more.
Laying out this detail is important. Just because you think something is normal and acceptable does not guarantee that the cattle owner will think so too. For example, I do not mechanically wean calves. I allow them to stay with their mothers and they stop nursing when their mothers dry off. I don’t even think about it anymore. But for a lot of cattle producers, the thought of not weaning calves is insane. They might freak out if I tell them seven months after calving that I’m not weaning their calves.
If you are the Owner and are selling livestock or livestock products into a marketing program with production rules, make sure the contract requires your custom grazier to keep your herd in compliance with the program. Be sure to include that you have the right to visit your livestock
Don’t ever assume the other party in your deal is going to do something a certain way. Even if you don’t record every painstaking detail in writing, make sure you discuss everything before signing anything.
9. Relationship of Parties
In this section we agree once more on the relationship between Owner and Grazier.
The “independent contractor” part of the contract is important. During my ill-fated year of custom grazing without a contract, the owner of the cattle did not recognize my custom grazing activities as being separate from my work as an employee of a beef company they owned. As a result, the owner wanted a lot more control over my business and my production practices than I was willing to grant.
I learned that your contract needs to say that the Owner has no right to control, direct or supervise you, the Grazier, in carrying out the contract terms. The contract does not create any partnership, employment or joint venture.
This section says, in fancy legal terms, that just because somebody doesn’t enforce some certain provision or exercise some right they have under the contract, that doesn’t void all or part of the contract. Changes can be made to the contract during a term, by way of both parties signing an amended contract. The written contract in question comprises the entirety of the agreement between the Owner and Grazier and supersedes all prior oral or written deals concerning the subject of the agreement.
What I Forgot
One thing that should have been in my last contract is that the Grazier has no obligation to market the Owner’s livestock. I was willing to help my herd owner find buyers for cattle on my farm that he wanted to sell, but I did not want sole responsibility for that task. The owner saw marketing as one of my duties as the custom grazier. This was a topic that we hadn’t discussed and the contract was not clear about whose job it was.
It didn’t end up being a problem, but it was still a concerning oversight that could have become a problem between different people. To avoid these situations in the future my contracts will include this sentence something like this: “This contract covers everything that the grazier agrees to do. Anything not written down here is not the responsibility of the grazier.”
At the end of the contract, both parties sign above their printed names and roles in their legal entities. You may also have a witness sign if desired. For extra protection, you may want to sign in the presence of a notary, and/or put the contract on public record with your county clerk.
As Northern New York farmers scout corn and soybean fields for any diseases that may impact crop health and yield, they can use five years’ worth of survey results as a guide to newly-emerging and common crop pathogens in Clinton, Essex, Franklin, Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties.
The corn and soybean disease survey project is funded by the farmer-driven Northern New York Agricultural Development Program. In addition to identifying current areas of concern and trends, the project provides regional farmers with the expertise of Cornell Cooperative Extension specialists who scout 12 sentinel fields of corn and 21 sentinel fields of soybeans. These fields on Northern New York Farms represent different soils and growing conditions, and a variety of cropping practices.
Fields are assessed at various stages of crop growth. The Bergstrom Lab at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., has cultured and analyzed field samples since 2013.
“Multi-year surveys better capture variations in weather from year-to-year, from a wet spring to drought in the past five years. The data helps farmers make more informed corn and soybean variety selections, evaluate soil and crop debris for potential problems, and plan management strategy,” said project leader and Cornell plant pathologist Dr. Gary C. Bergstrom, Ithaca, N.Y.
This disease survey project was started in 2013 as the first systematic assessment of corn and soybean diseases conducted in Northern New York in recent decades.
Results of the most recent NNY corn disease survey by county is online at https://fieldcrops.cals.
A statewide soybean disease survey is online at https://fieldcrops.cals.
For more information, contact Cornell Cooperative Extension North Country Field Crop Specialists Kitty O’Neil, 315-854-1218, and Mike Hunter, 315-788-8450.
By Marie Anselm
Many farms have considered hosting special events on-site as a marketing strategy to attract new and existing customers. Any kind of farm can host an on-farm event, not just those that have regularly scheduled agritourism activities. A special event could include a farm that is usually closed to the public hosting a harvest dinner, or a Community Supported Agriculture operation opening to non-members.From a marketing perspective, farms may find on-farm special events an appealing way of reaching out to large amounts of people. On-farm special events can potentially increase farm sales the day of the event, make new customers to drive future sales, and build relationships with existing customers. However, beyond anecdotal evidence, there is little information on how, if at all, these events help farms gain and retain customers. Hosting an on-farm special event requires a significant amount of time and planning for it to be successful. Before hosting such an event it is helpful for farms to have an understanding of how customers will respond so they can decide if an on-farm special event is a good fit for their marketing goals.
Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) Madison County coordinates a large on-farm special event every year: Open Farm Day. Open Farm Day is a collaborative event where around 30 farms across Madison County, NY open to the public for the same hours on the same Saturday in July. Farms of all types and all sizes participate, and for many it is the only event that they host at their farm. Open Farm Day draws almost 4,000 people, many of whom are children and families. Event attendees are able to visit as many farms as they want and receive a free giveaway prize for visiting at least three farms.
To learn more about customer attraction and retention from on-farm special events, CCE Madison County surveyed Open Farm Day visitors via two electronic surveys in 2015 and 2016. To gather visitors’ email addresses, every participating Open Farm Day farm signed-in guests with a form that allowed visitors to leave their email address if they were willing to be contacted to take a survey on their experience with the event. CCE Madison also made a link to take the survey online public. The first survey was sent out to Open Farm Day guests in 2015 and 2016 to a total of 1,125 unique Open Farm Day visitors that attended the event those years. Results from this survey in 2015 and 2016 were aggregated for a total of 366 responses representing a response rate of approximately 35.5 percent. The second survey was a visitor follow-up survey sent in 2016 a year after Open Farm Day only to respondents who took the first survey in 2015. The second survey was sent to 196 individuals who responded to the first survey in 2015 and garnered a total of 65 responses for a response rate of 33.2 percent. Survey responses were tracked by name and email address to ensure there were no duplicate responses.
To isolate how attending Open Farm Day affected customers, these surveys asked visitors if they were a first-time Open Farm Day attendee or a repeat attendee. Results from the survey were analyzed by comparing “first-time attendees”, those that attended Open Farm Day for the first time when they took the survey, to “repeat attendees”. Standard means difference tests were used to analyze differences between these two groups. Results reported below that are “statistically significant” indicate that differences in data are unlikely to be due to chance.
In the first survey of aggregated responses from 2015 and 2016, 49.7 percent of respondents were first-time attendees and 50.3 percent were repeat attendees. Both first-time and repeat attendees showed strong support for local food with 86.3 and 88.6 percent respectively, reporting that they currently purchase local food. This difference was not statistically significant. There was also not a statistically significant difference between first-time and repeat attendees with the number of farms they purchased product from on Open Farm Day; on average, first-time attendees purchased product from 2.6 farms compared to 2.8 for repeat attendees. However, there was a statistically significant difference between the average number of farms that first-time and repeat attendees visited on Open farm Day, which was 4.4 and 5.1, respectively.
There were other ways in which differences between first-time and repeat attendees were statistically significant. First-time attendees were statistically less likely to be familiar with farms they visited at Open Farm Day prior to the event with 58.8 percent reporting some familiarity with farms and 40.7 percent reporting no familiarity, compared to 83.7 percent and 14.7 percent of repeat attendees, respectively. First-time attendees also differed significantly from repeat attendees in purchasing product at Open Farm Day; 87.4 percent of first-time attendees purchased product from farms they visited compared to 93.5 percent of repeat attendees.
Visitors who made purchases at Open Farm Day are a critical group of customers contributing to event sales. Of the total visitors that purchased product at Open Farm Day, 40.1 percent reported that it was their first time making a purchase from at least one of the farms they visited. Examining those visitors that did make purchases at Open Farm Day, 66.4 percent were first-time attendees and 54.2 percent reported no familiarity with the farms they purchased product from prior to the event. Overall, 55.4 percent of first-time attendees that purchased product did so for the first time from a farm versus 25.8 percent of repeat attendees. This means that 43.9 percent of first-time attendees and 74.1 percent of repeat attendees that purchased product were repeat customers to farms. These differences were statistically significant.
First-time and repeat attendees reported similar levels of satisfaction with Open Farm Day. In ranking their experience with Open Farm Day on a scale from one to five with one being “strongly disagree” and five being “strongly agree”, first-time and repeat attendees rated their experience a 4.76 and 4.74, respectively. However, there was a statistically significant different between first-time and repeat attendees when asked if they intended to return to Open Farm Day the following year. Only 86.3 percent of first-time attendees reported they intended to attend Open Farm Day next year versus 95.6 percent of repeat attendees.
More information on this study, including a fact sheet with full result charts and a recorded presentation are available at http://cceontario.org/agriculture/ag-economic-development/agritourism-resources.
The follow-up survey sent out in 2016 to respondents of the 2015 survey did not yield a representative population sample, but its results shed more light on visitors who were repeat attendees in 2015, which made up 64.6 percent of respondents. In total, 78.5 percent of follow-up survey respondents reported buying product from farms they visited at Open Farm Day in the year after the event versus 78.3 percent of first-time attendees and 78.6 of repeat attendees. After attending Open Farm Day in 2015, 56.5 percent of those that were first-time attendees went to Open Farm Day again in 2016 compared to 69 percent of repeat attendees. Of those respondents that did attend Open Farm Day 2016, 100 percent of those that were first-time attendees in 2015 and 97.5 percent of repeat attendees in 2015 said they learned about new farms and farm products at the event in 2016.
These surveys show that there are significant differences between first-time and repeat customers who attend on-farm special events. Repeat attendees are more likely to purchase product, more likely to already be familiar with farms and have purchased product from them, and are more likely to report they will attend the same on-farm special event again. First-time customers reported high satisfaction with the event, reported visiting farms they were not previously familiar with, and were more likely than repeat customers to make first-time purchases at the event. However, first-time attendees were less likely than repeat attendees to report intent to attend Open Farm Day in the following year. Overall, both repeat and first-time customers said they learned about new farms and farms products at Open Farm Day, demonstrating that on-farm events are a good marketing tactic for farms to increase awareness about their products.
Based on customer responses, on-farm special events also have great sales potential. Farms that offer product for sale at these events can see strong day-of sales, as evidenced by around 90 percent of survey respondents reporting buying product at Open Farm Day. Also, Open Farm Day gained farms many new customers the day of the event considering that first-time attendees that also purchased product for the first time, which was 55.4 percent of first-time attendees, represent a group of truly new customers. On-farm special events can encourage repeat customers to increase purchases that they otherwise may not have made if not for the event, which makes on-farm
special events a great way to retain the interest of loyal customers. It should also be noted that 25.8 percent of repeat Open Farm Day attendees made purchases from a farm at the event for the first time, showing that attendees do not always make purchases their first time to an event but that they can be convinced to do so in the future.
It is difficult to tell if these events offer farms long-term customers. The follow-up survey did not yield many responses, but of those that did respond many said they bought product from Open Farm Day farms after the event. Farms may be able to gain first time sales from on-farm special events, but there is no guarantee that these customers will return to become more frequent customers. Recalling that first-time Open Farm Day attendees reported high event satisfaction and frequently bought product but still showed a lower intent to attend the next year, farms can do more hook new customers.
Farms looking to gain long-term customers from hosting on-farm special events should have clear plans in advance as to how they use their event to convert first-time customers into repeat customers. One way farms can do this is by offering incentives to event attendees to visit again, such as discounts on future purchases. Farms should also promote their sales channels at events so that attendees know where to buy product in the future event if they do not live close to the farm. This could include farmers markets, local farm stores, or online sales. Any farm hosting an on-farm event should use them as an opportunity to collect customer email addresses to have a way to market to customers in the future. Staying in contact with attendees is critical to maintaining their interest in the farm post-event.
Hosting on-farm events are an excellent marketing tool for farms, but farms should have realistic expectations about how they contribute to customer attraction and retention. From a marketing perspective, gaining and retaining customers are two different objectives. Gaining customers typically requires more resources than retaining existing customers. On-farm events can be a way to keep loyal customers and encourage them to increase their farm purchases. Farms can gain new customers at on-farm events from day-of sales, but to keep them coming back as long-term customers farms should view on-farm events as part of a larger marketing strategy.
This research is based upon work supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, through the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program under subaward number ONE15-229.
Marie Anselm is the Agriculture Economic Development Specialist for Cornell Cooperative Extension Ontario County where she can be reached at email@example.com. She enjoys being able to meet and work with so many diverse farm operations as part of her work supporting New York state agriculture.
By Lisa Waterman Gray
Inside an antique farmhouse at the Ganondagan State Historic Site just east of Rochester, New York, a stainless steel coffee roaster hums as it parches Iroquois White Corn with heat, increasing its digestibility. Once the process is complete, after about 20 minutes, Iroquois Corn Project volunteers and staff will use a stone grinder to create corn flour they then sell to the public.
This is the home of the Iroquois White Corn Project, whose mission is to preserve and promote an indigenous strain of corn that has been prized by local Iroquois for 1,000 years. With three products—Iroquois hulled corn, corn flour, and roasted corn flour—the project operates out of the nonprofit at Ganondagan, where the Seneca, a community of Iroquoian-speaking peoples, thrived more than 350 years ago.
“The mission of the Iroquois White Corn Project is to encourage Haudenosaunee [Iroquois] farmers to grow the corn and to eat it for more than just special occasions or ceremonial use—[making it] something they eat every day,” said Jeanette Miller, program director for Friends of Ganondaganand a member of the Mohawk tribe of the Iroquois Confederacy. Once hulled, the indigenous corn can be used in soups, stews, salads, and more, and the flour can be used to make breading, mush, cornbread, cookies, cakes, and other baked goods.
“We started playing with the corn and trying different recipes… and everyone started to really enjoy it,” Miller said. “[We encourage people to] grow their own gardens and get Iroquois White Corn back on their tables for their families.”
Founded in its current location in 2011 by G. Peter Jemison, Ganondagan Historic Site manager and a member of the Heron Clan of the Seneca Nation of Indians, the Iroquois White Corn Project currently yields an average of 5,000 pounds per year, and they expect to grow that number considerably in the coming years. Project managers sell the corn to grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and individuals, and they hope to one day break into the market of chefs who focus on using indigenous ingredients.
Across the country, a number of individuals and groups, from Louisiana to Nebraska and New England to Arizona, are also working to propagate native corn in hopes of preserving history and tradition and taking advantage of the plants’ nutritional value.
“There are [many Native] people raising, picking, and storing corn, and they’re also eating it,” Jemison said. “We were supplying the Seneca Nation with white corn [but] after our talks and demonstrations, they now are setting up their own project and will be processing their own corn,” he said. “This was our goal.”
Nutritionally, the corn variety is gluten free; low in sugar; high in fiber, protein, and slow-releasing carbohydrates; it’s also packed with amino acids that help to build healthy cells. Jemison hopes it can start to improve the health of the Iroquois people, who face a number of diet-related health issues. According to the American Diabetes Association, Native peoples throughout the U.S. have the highest rate of diabetes of any ethnic group, with nearly 16 percent of tribal members affected. Limited access to healthy, fresh food has exacerbated the problem.
“The sincere hope of [the project’s original founder], John Mohawk, was that by putting Native food back on our tables, we might grow healthier,” Jemison said. “Could it be possible that if we return to a more Native diet, we could really combat diabetes?”
History in the Making
Traditional “sweet corn” sold at grocery stores across the U.S. is usually yellow in color, edible directly from the cob, and features high sugar content and a completely digestible hull. Iroquois White Corn, however, is a flour corn with a subtle, slightly nutty flavor and ears that are longer, wider, and heavier than sweet corn.
Historically, Iroquois women raised, planted, weeded, protected, harvested, braided, dried, shelled, and cooked the dietary staple. When the French army and its allies attacked what is now Ganondagan and three other Seneca towns in 1687, however, they destroyed nearly 1.3 million bushels of corn. Later, during the Revolutionary War, George Washington ordered Army troops to devastate and destroy Seneca settlements, ruining planted crops including 350,000 bushels of corn.
Although the Seneca continued farming, their constant need to move and reestablish their communities was devastating. Simultaneously, white ministers and educators insisted that Seneca men become the farmers, rather than Seneca women, further disrupting their traditional way of life.
Although Jemison has run the project out of Ganondagan for the last seven years, Dr. John Mohawk and his wife, Dr. Yvonne Dion Buffalo, originally founded it in the 1990s on the Cattaraugus Reservation, approximately two hours’ drive from Ganondagan. Jemison became involved with the project as John and Yvonne were establishing it, but when they died in 2005 and 2006, everything came to a screeching halt. Three to four years after their deaths, Jemison decided to re-start the project at Ganondagan, providing a stream of income for the Friends of Ganondagan group that supports the park.
“At a site like ours, you’re at the actual location where our people lived in the 1700s,” Jemison said. “You’ll see one of our traditional houses and our traditional plants, [and] the Iroquois White Corn Project is part of the total. Unfortunately, most Americans know very little about Native Americans. There’s not a whole of information about [us] in textbooks.”
Today, the project operates cooperatively with the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum. Interns and volunteer Friends of Ganondagan support the small staff that runs the project. As noted on its website, and true to the cultural roots that surround growing and use of this sacred corn, project organizers request that those who work with it today do so with a good mind, “bringing love and good intentions to the process while acknowledging the Creator and Mother Earth.”
A Labor-Intensive Process
Growing and processing Iroquois white corn takes considerable time and effort. Native American or First Nations’ farmers, who buy seed directly from the Project, must hand-plant and hand-pick the crop. The harvest occurs in October or early November.
Jemison also had to find individuals who could learn the entire process of preparing the corn, which has to be de-hulled, roasted, ground, and packaged in small batches. He sought out young people entering the job market and grant money enabled him to provide them with a decent wage.
Project leaders adapted the traditional cooking process to cut down on the amount of work. “We took away the time-consuming part of cooking and processing of the corn [traditionally, which used] hard wood ash to remove the hull from each kernel,” he said. Instead, the project workers use culinary lime, which accomplishes the same results. Washing the corn helps to remove the rest of the hull.
“We then hold a husking bee and braid the ears of corn together 30-plus at a time,” Jemison said. “We hang the corn to dry until April or May, and then it is hand-shelled from the cob, [washed, and sorted]. “This is ideally a community-based effort,” Jemison continued. And like all farming, it is subject to the uncertainty of weather.
Because Iroquois white corn products are so labor-intensive, they’re costly to make. “Farmers who grow the corn don’t see this as a get-rich-quick scheme,” Jemison said. “But because we provide markets for them, it encourages them to do this.”
Jemison says the process is worth the effort. “I think it’s important to keep growing food that has an ancient history, originates in the Americas, and is native to the area you come from,” he said.
He hopes that ultimately, the Iroquois White Corn Project will sustain itself; the Iroquois people will be able to raise more of their own corn and support farmers; and health outcomes will improve.
“This is the food that our Creator provided us with,” Jemison said. “Because so much corn was destroyed at Ganondagan, we believe it is very important to grow it and sell it here. [Food opens doors], especially when you sit down and eat together.”
By Suzanne Pender
For a remote, mountainous area in West Virginia, McDowell County has gotten a lot of attention lately. The late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain filmed a segment of his television show there, and West Virginia native Elaine McMillion Sheldon, filmed her Peabody Award winning documentary “Hollow” there (her recent documentary short “Heroin(e),” also based in West Virginia, was nominated for an Academy Award last year).
The area’s statistics are daunting – the county is the poorest in West Virginia with the one of the lowest life expectancies in the United States. Yet, military veterans Jason Tartt and Sylvester “Sky” Edwards see a different picture – one of potential. Jason and Sky are rolling up their sleeves and bringing new life to the area by creating jobs through farmer training and economic development, and growing healthy food for local schools and their community.
With a history of coal’s rise and decline, the people of McDowell County have suffered from job and population loss and health issues due to drug addiction and limited access to healthy food.
This is a lot different from the McDowell County where Jason grew up. “It wasn’t a food desert when I was raised here. You had a garden, an apple tree, pear tree, something like that in every yard. I didn’t care if the grocery stores were stocked or not. People could survive — and that went for everybody. But when I came back, I saw that tradition had not been passed on to future generations. It was gone.”
When asked why those skills were lost, Jason said, “I think the decline of coal mining. We took for granted that it would always be there, so there was no transition plan. We don’t promote agriculture to kids. We take farmers for granted. Now we’re in an economically depressed situation, health is bad, we’ve got drugs ravaging the place. And we’ve got to figure out how to stop the bleeding, how to bring people back to this area. And I think agriculture is a major player in making that happen.”
Starting McDowell County Farms
Jason and Sky have a lot in common. Both men served in the military – Jason in Bosnia and Sky in Vietnam. Both moved around a lot. Both saw something in McDowell County that inspired them. But, their paths to farming were very different.
Sky grew up farming and later studied organic farming at the Rodale Institute. After leaving his North Carolina farm to his children, he wanted to start again in someplace new, someplace that needed farmers. “To me, it’s always been a greater need in an impoverished area,” he said. “And, I’m of the persuasion that instead of growing food I can send to you, I’d rather stand beside you and teach you how to grow it. And you then you can teach others. That’s the ripple in the water that keeps on growing,” he said. He picked McDowell County, and reached out to Jason after some people in the community suggested he meet him.
Jason, searching for the right fit back home in McDowell, said, “I just so happened to read an article about veterans and agriculture and decided to see if I could do something.” Combining Sky’s farming skills with the business and partnership-building skills Jason cultivated at the Department of Defense, McDowell County Farms was formed.
The solitude of being immersed in nature helped both veterans heal. Sky said, “Coming home (from Vietnam) at the time… The most therapeutic thing I could do was to be out there in a rural area working. I found peace and solace. I needed that. I was able to confront all of the things I had been through. I found a place I could put them and live with them.“
New to farming, Jason said, “Agriculture has been good for me – the solitude, silence. The pleasure I get out of putting a seed in the ground and seeing it grow. You know, just being able to quiet your mind. It allows you to take your mind off everything else. This has been instrumental for me.”
The farm includes land in several areas around the county. One is used as a training facility for youth and veterans. Sky said, “We can get veterans in here and they lose track of time. They’ll look up and say, ‘Is it 4 o’clock already? Can I come back tomorrow?’”
What They Grow
The farm grows tomatoes, cucumbers and melons for the local school. Sky said, “We’re beta testing what products they want. This will go into the school lunches and salad bar. We grow lettuces, and at the end of the season, the high tunnel will be full of spinach, lettuce, French chard, kale — we love kale, and grow several different types — beets, arugula, okra, corn, a little of everything.” The list goes on to include mushrooms, maple syrup, green beans, dried beans, berry production, and fruit trees. Pastured chickens provide free-range eggs.
The hillsides are perfect for orchards. “Our focus is shifting, because, you have to incorporate the mountains. So that’s why we’re expanding to maple syrup, honey, mushrooms. You start talking about your proteins, and there are a lot of vegetables and things we can grow that provide you with everything you need,” said Jason.
They are also considering a regenerative paw paw orchard. “Paw paws can be freeze dried for 15-20 years. Combined with black walnuts, that’s just the sort of thing the tourists could take out into the woods here,” said Sky.
Dorothy, Jason’s wife, makes value-added items from the land, such as soaps and lotions using local herbs. “I started getting into herbs because of my health,” she said. “The body can heal itself, you just need to give it the right nutrients to heal.”
USDA and Other Partnerships
Partnerships are the lifeblood of McDowell County Farms. One partner is the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. “NRCS helped us with high tunnels, drip irrigation, all of it,” said Sky.
Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS):
NRCS works at the local level, helping communities and individual farmers achieve their conservation goals. For more information on how NRCS helps farmers with high tunnels and other conservation practices, visit www.nrcs.usda.gov
“We have a project for high tunnels in the county,” said Gary Redden, the local NRCS conservationist. “And we’re hoping we can involve others who want to start farming. These guys are the reason we targeted this area. We saw what they were trying do down here, and this was a way to try to enhance it.” NRCS works at the local level, following the lead community leaders, to develop a focused conservation approach to address local challenges and opportunities.
Jason added, “These are the things you’d want from your government. We can’t grow food year round here, but if we want to be competitive in the market, we’re going to
have to figure out how to do that. High tunnels make it possible for me to carry my business further into the year. If you want to support local business it’s a no brainer.”
The high tunnels have also helped other natural resources. “Runoff and erosion were terrible. Because I started with the high tunnel I’ve had to address that. Putting the high tunnels up and working the ground here, conservation comes with it,” said Jason.
Though organic practices are used, Jason said they’d like to get certified as they expand beyond local markets. NRCS has a conservation activity plan that can help farmers transition to organic, and the Farm Service Agency helps offset the costs for organic certification.
Jason and Sky want to put agriculture on the map in McDowell by teaching others. But bringing farming back to the area hasn’t been easy. Learning as they go, the farmers have made adjustments to their approach and business plan.
“One of the things veterans said is that everyone is trying to get veterans into ag but no one is telling these guys how to sell the product, or make a sustainable model,” said Jason. “So finally we decided to go at it a different way. We started SEEDH, Southeast Economic and Educational Development Hub Cooperative Corporation. We talked about what our market is, who would buy, what would sell, and how to synergize agriculture with the tourism industry that’s growing here.”
“We don’t tell folks what to farm. We give them exposure to what’s here — beekeeping, maple syrup production, growing in the high tunnel. Once they decide, then we put things in place so they can move forward,” said Jason. “It’s become a lot of community activism. I’m a team builder. That’s one of my strengths.” Jason has brought in landscape architects, business and market professionals and students from Virginia Tech, Bluefield College and West Virginia University to advise new farmers setting up their businesses.
Jason’s son (also named Jason) started a mushroom business, and recently led on-farm classes on mushroom production, inoculating logs with Shitake. “I’m nineteen. When my father brought me back here, at first, I wasn’t sure what we were going to do. But, I started to see the end goal. And seeing some of the kids who are suffering with parents on drugs, I asked, what are they going to do? They are probably going to leave. The biggest export we have right now is the kids. But, they don’t have to leave in order to build a career and build a life. So, that’s my mission — to teach the kids. This is home. And we don’t want them to leave. It is a very poor place, but it is a goldmine.”
Jason Jr. is also the head of American Youth Agripreneur Association, which teaches students about different facets of the agribusiness sector, primarily harvesting in Appalachia. They also learn to write business plans, marketing, developing value-added products, working in high tunnels and much more.
Asked about his son’s ability to inspire others, Jason said, “A lot of young people look at him and say, ‘I think there may be a chance for me here.’”
They are also in the process of starting a farm store with local products. “We went to North Carolina and there are a lot of folks in farm communities that go to places with locally sourced products. We don’t have that here. So, we bought a building in Kimbell. It needs a lot of work, but we’re going to start a small farm store there. And, as kids and their parents go through the training program, they can bring their products to the farm store and we’ll sell it for them. We’ve got a lot of irons in the fire. But it’s necessary at this point. If it’s going to move, we have to push it,” said Jason.
Healthy Food in the Local School
Helping people understand what healthy food is and why it’s important is a priority. “Diabetes, heart disease, you name it, we’re at or near the top of the list for those things,” said Jason.
The farmers are working with schools and youth organizations, and hope that farming can be of special help to some of the area’s troubled youth. Jason Jr. is partnering with a local school to grow vegetables in a high tunnel right on the property.
They also partner with West Virginia University Extension Service’s “Kids Koupon” program, which brings farmers markets to schools along with nutritionists and dieticians.
With the efforts of these farmers and their community, the future for McDowell County looks bright. “This is home. It’s a beautiful place. And a lot of beautiful things have happened to my life here because of the people that had something to do with my upbringing,” said Jason.
Sky reflects, “And so, people ask, when do you stop giving. You know what, my reservoir’s refilled every day. I get tired like everybody else. But tomorrow morning when I get up, I’m grateful to be alive. And, I don’t mean that because I’m 68 years old. I mean that because I’ve lived through Vietnam and I put a lot of young men in bags. But I’m still here. So I have a lot to be thankful for.”
“We can go through life and we can take and take and take and take. And somewhere we’re going to get to the end of the line, and there’s nothing else to take. Or we can go through life slowly, and we’ll get to the end, but we’re giving as we go.”
Suzanne Pender is a communications coordinator at the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, specializing in the areas of organic, veteran, and urban farmers and can be reached at Suzanne.firstname.lastname@example.org
Source for more Info:
Photo Credits: Suzanne Pender (USDA), Suzanne.email@example.com
Rebecca Haddix (USDA), Rebecca.firstname.lastname@example.org
By Mark Phillips
In the Spring of 2017, 35 people gathered at Back the Lane Farm in Stephentown, New York, for a workshop with Mark Shepard, author of Restoration Agriculture, to witness the design and implementation of a permaculture inspired chestnut and hazelnut orchard. As the founder of New Forest Farm in Viola, Wisconsin — a commercial scale, perennial agricultural ecosystem that mimics the native ecology of its bioregion — Shepard has served as resource and inspiration for farmers aspiring to use agroforestry, or the intentional cultivation of trees and tree crops, as a vehicle for ecological restoration and financial profitability. This story highlights the work of three diversified tree farms in the Hudson valley area, united by the bold vision that chestnuts and hazelnuts can one day be the staple food of the Northeast region and beyond.
As woody perennials that produce nuts year after year without the annual tillage required of grains and vegetables, chestnuts and hazelnuts are ecosystem services providers par excellence–reclaiming degraded landscapes while sequestering carbon in topsoil and plant biomass. Project Drawdown, an interdisciplinary collaborative that recently delineated the 100 top solutions to climate change, has called out regenerative agriculture for its potential to reverse global warming while enhancing agricultural resilience and food security in the face of intensifying climate change. Together, chestnuts and hazelnuts represent an opportunity to advance agroforestry as a carbon farming practice in the Northeast, with the added benefit that their nuts are a profitable new cash crop for the region’s agricultural economy.
Indeed, in addition to their ecological benefits, chestnuts and hazelnuts boast growing domestic and international markets in short supply. Propagate Ventures, an agroforestry investment firm based in Hudson, NY, estimates that it would only take 5,000 acres of chestnuts to displace the $12.4 million imported into the country in 2011, with opportunities to further capitalize on unique options for value-added processing. Chestnuts, for example, can be processed into a delicious gluten-free flour, while hazelnuts produce a superior culinary oil and, of course, are a main ingredient in Ferrero’s popular Nutella spread. The pair are nutritionally similar to corn and soy, respectively, and could conceivably replace their annual counterparts with enough support and investment: “We’re going to replicate the corn/soybean model because we know it works at scale, and so we want to have some sort of analog for both,” shares Ben Hart, who hosted Shepard’s workshop last spring.
As a part of a long-term vision to seed a new industry for nuts in the Hudson Valley, Hart planted several thousand seedlings on his farm in a single weekend with support from Shepard’s team and workshop participants. Initially sourcing commercially yielding varieties from Shepard’s nursery, Hart plans to work together with neighboring Shaker Creek Farm to breed locally adapted nursery stock for larger orchard development in the area over the next decade.
Good genetics are the foundation of successful nut growing operations, and decades of work from independent growers in the Midwest and Finger Lakes, NY, regions have produced hybridized varieties of both chestnuts and hazels that address issues like chestnut and eastern filbert blight, while offering cold-hardiness and commercial farm productivity. Active breeding efforts by farmers and researchers themselves are ongoing, with nurseries like Shepard’s quickly selling out each season as demand for nut trees increases throughout the country.
“Our goal is to begin developing chestnuts, hazelnuts, and other perennial plant species for commercial use,” shares Keegan Schelling of Shaker Creek Farm, “so that there is enough supply for area farmers as the industry grows.” With a diversified orchard planted last spring that includes plans for zero-input, organic apples for cider production, Keegan and his partner Alison are also researching effective perennial polycultures — intentional plantings of diverse species in mutually beneficial relationship — that can be profitably replicated throughout Columbia County and elsewhere in the Hudson valley.
Hopeful nut growers like the Schelling and Hart families are enthusiastic about opportunities to collaborate and support other growers in the region. Right across the border in Western Massachusetts, Seva Tower and Kalyan Uprichard of Nutwood Farm similarly embrace other growers as important harbingers of success for a larger movement around chestnuts and hazelnuts. “Maybe there’s something to this if multiple businesses jumped into production feet first. We’re really trying to inspire an industry here, so having co-conspirators in the start up is a welcome relief,” says Seva.
Primarily focused on hazelnuts, the couple began converting their seven-acre woodlot into a diverse, community-scale food forest two years ago and is already seeing the first signs of nuts on some of the top-performing shrubs. Like their neighbors in New York, Seva and Kalyan are keen on resource sharing, with the goal of learning from existing growers in the Midwest and, eventually, plugging into larger efforts for regional nut-producer cooperation.
Pathways to Scale
Cooperative development between growers and food system stakeholders will play a key role in supporting the longer-term success of a nut industry in the region. “In the Midwest almost across the board there are mid-scale businesses that producers are selling into, and those businesses are doing all of the packaging, processing, and distribution,” shares Connor Stedman of Appleseed Permaculture, a farm planning and regenerative design firm based in the Hudson Valley and New England area. Both Stedman and his colleague Russell Wallack research nut-based agroforestry systems as a part of their role with Appleseed, referencing the Route 9 Cooperative in Ohio as a successful example of coordinated sales and distribution for nuts. Processing upwards of 100,000 pounds of chestnuts annually, the Route 9 Cooperative provides efficiencies of scale for five different orchards that might otherwise compete with one another to access consumer markets.
Both Stedman and Wallack are enthusiastic about the potential of nuts while offering guiding caution to new growers: “Recognizing that we’re at such an early stage with this crop in the US context, we need to be scientific about it if we want to develop an industry around chestnuts in the region,” shares Wallack, who emphasizes that research and collaboration on breeding for commercial production up front will directly benefit the ultimate success of a nut industry in the region.
“It sounds like a monumental task, but I’m mostly encouraged,” says Seva from Nutwood Farm. Like their Hudson Valley neighbors, Seva and Kalyan are taking the lead on their own breeding efforts while calling for additional support from values-aligned partners: “Soybeans were non-existent as a crop 100 years ago and it’s only because of massive public investment through land-grant universities and public research that spurred the soy plant into existence. So nuts really just need a revolution, a little redirected resources, and it could totally happen.”
With active breeding efforts underway, there is promising potential for tapping into larger networks of existing nut-growers throughout the region. About 200 miles west of the Hudson Valley in the Finger Lakes, for example, the nascent New York Tree Crops Alliance is taking tangible steps towards the formation of a producer cooperative. Established New York operations like Twisted Tree Farm in Spencer and Z’s Nutty Ridge in McGraw already serve as important resources to new nut growers in the surrounding region, providing commercial nursery stock and education around orchard planting and maintenance. The budding cooperative is an opportunity to further develop technical assistance for chestnut and hazel operations throughout the state while supporting the regional adoption of nuts as an ecologically regenerative industry. With projected sales in the $500M range over twenty years, the cooperative identifies the chestnut and hazelnut duo as a financially viable opportunity for restoring fallow hillsides throughout New York State to agricultural productivity.
Leading with polyculture, not monoculture
Moving forward, a key challenge will be to develop production models for chestnuts and hazels that not only optimize biodiversity but also achieve the economies of scale necessary for commercial viability. “All of this research is about how we design diverse chestnut orchards, or orchards that effectively integrate into a farm system,” shares Wallack. He notes the distinction between simplified monoculture plantings of chestnuts and the more diverse, albeit labor-intensive polycultures in
place at farms like Shepard’s in Wisconsin.
Ben Hart, whose initial planting last spring serves as a model for regional replication, points out that, “If we want this regenerative model of nut-based polyculture farming to explode, it must be profitable for farmers to operate at price points consumers are willing to accept. In the context of an economic system that rewards productivity and scale, the long-term adoption of such diversified farms calls for business models that navigate the complexity of polyculture while attaining at least some of the operational efficiencies of commodity-scale monoculture — not an easy nut to crack.“
Information sharing is huge: we’re all in the same game together and I don’t see other people who are doing nuts as a competitor with me so much as a possible collaborator,” affirms Hart. He identifies opportunities for coordinated research on farm plans and financial models as key to the long-term success of a nut-industry in the Hudson valley and beyond.
Recognizing that the trees are a long-term investment, farmers aspiring to return chestnuts and hazels to the northeast food system are clearly a highly committed, entrepreneurial lot. For Nutwood Farm, the planting of nuts is a deliberate choice, rooted in a larger story about the potential of perennial agriculture to heal degraded land and regenerate communities: “We still have the diversity of the natural environment, we have the insect and the bird life that are the signature of a healthy ecosystem, or at least one that is recovering,” share Seva and Kalyan. “We can contribute to that or we can take from that. We contribute to it by bringing in more diversity, because diversity is strength.”
Mark is based in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where he explores the relationships between food, community, and agriculture in the new economy. You can read more of his writing and learn about his work at https://about.me/MarkjPHL
A Guide for Farmers Who Want to Supply Low-Income Communities While Maintaining Financial Sustainability
This manual offers strategies and insights to help you run a small farm business that supports the needs of low-income communities.
As much as farmers want to support the community, the community needs our solidarity. About 50 million Americans are food insecure, with half of those individuals living in food deserts, where it’s difficult or impossible to access affordable, healthy food. This lack of access to life-giving food has dire consequences for people.
This manual is drawn from: (1) our experience growing Soul Fire Farm, a family farm working to end racial and economic injustice in the food system; (2) the experiences of our allied farms in the struggle for food justice; and (3) extensive research on resources and best practices for serving low-income communities in the local food and agricultural sector.
Funding for this project was provided by the USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program. This guide draws extensively from public reports written by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and the Project for Public Spaces. We are deeply grateful for these invaluable resources.
Learn more and download the FREE publication: https://projects.sare.org/information-product/sowing-the-seeds-of-justice-food-manual/ and http://www.soulfirefarm.org/media/publications/
By Matthew Alfultis
In the event of an emergency, farming operations can be a challenge for first responders due to the size of each operation and the unique risks they pose, which can vary from farm to farm. With the average farm spanning 444 acres, it can be difficult to navigate personnel to an exact location. Imagine trying to guide a response team past hazardous materials, animals, weight-limited bridges and unmarked paths. Farm MAPPER, a component of the Rural Firefighters Delivering Agricultural Safety and Health (RFDASH) project at the National Farm Medicine Center, addresses this issue by providing an overhead view of the farm; allowing first responders to become familiar with the operation on scene.
The way Farm MAPPER works is simple. Participants can register their farm through the website by setting up an account with an email address and password. Through the site, they can pull up an aerial view of the farm and place pins to mark certain hazards. There are markers for structures such as power and gas cut offs, access roads, water sources, animal pens, hazardous materials and much more. Just about anything on farm can be mapped with the software, which can then be viewed by first responders trying to navigate a farm operation. Once the map is complete, it is stored on the National Farm Medicine Center’s secure servers where it can only be accessed by the farmer.
Dr. Matt Keifer, Professor at the University of Washington, originally paired with Jerry Minor, Chief of the Pittsville Fire Department, in 2013 to create Farm MAPPER. The original concept revolved around scanning QR codes, or quick response codes, to access data saved on them. Once first responders arrived on scene, scanning the linked code would bring up the map of the farm created through the website. Compatible with smartphones and tablets, it was a versatile option that responders can easily utilize. With immediate access to a map of the farm, first responders were able to preplan an operation on scene. This was the intent of Dr. Keifer, who wanted to “Put into the hands of firefighters a map of the hazards to prepare for and necessary equipment to bring.”
With agricultural businesses posing the same dangers to first responders as commercial ones, like harmful chemicals and confined spaces, this foreknowledge allows them to plan for what is present on scene. Agricultural emergencies are made even more dangerous by the lack of planning materials and therefore overall unfamiliarity among first responders. Combined with a lower frequency of occurrence, this lack of planning makes responses to a farm high-risk for injury. Chief Jerry Minor explained, “Most firefighters are not prepared for these emergencies because they just don’t happen every day.” When drilling with Farm MAPPER, pre-planning is possible and allows first responders to become acquainted with the farm, landscape and location of hazards on scene. In a time where many first responders are not aware of the dangers on farms, the application helps keep both first responders and farm workers safe by allowing them to understand what they are getting involved with.
Since the original application launched, Farm MAPPER has updated to be more accessible through a web-based system. Through the website, farmers or first
responders can pull up the farm map on route to the emergency instead of having to wait for arrival on scene. When time is everything in a response, this new advancement helps immediately direct necessary aid to a specific location. Dr. Casper Bendixsen and Kate Barnes of the National Farm Medicine Center are also testing other additions to the software, most notably augmented reality. When used, first responders could use their phone or tablet as a 360-degree lens to view where hazards are located in real time. Instead of looking over a large map of the farm, it would show them what is immediately in front of them and a more precise direction on where they need to go. Along with that, they hope to incorporate the use of QR codes to hold important documents such as schematics for equipment or training videos. This could allow for disassembling a piece of equipment someone is stuck in, or provide safety training to an employee unfamiliar with farming operations.
In the future, each of these aspects could be incorporated into all levels of a response. Officers could use the aerial view to direct resources on scene while first responders navigate on scene using the augmented reality to locate where the emergency is. Once they arrive at the incident, responders can utilize QR codes pull up any pertinent information about a piece of equipment involved.
If you are interested in signing up for the program, Farm MAPPER is accessible online at http://www.nfmcfarmmapper.com/Account/LogOn. The program is free to sign up for, but it is suggested that you collaborate with your local fire department to set up a joint account they can access. Along with that, a farm walk-through with your department is recommended since they can add specific markers to the map and identify additional hazards. They can determine what water sources would be appropriate to label as well as where the best location for a helicopter-landing zone would be. Since many farmers are familiar with their equipment, responders can identify an overlooked hazard. Chief Minor explained, “If it’s an everyday piece of equipment, they won’t recognize the danger of it.” More than anything, it helps the local department prepare for an emergency by seeing firsthand the equipment used at a particular farm. This supports the goals of the RFDASH project to create more communication between farmers and first responders about the hazards of the industry.
If you have any questions about Farm MAPPER or the RFDASH project, you can contact Dr. Casper Bendixsen by email at email@example.com or by calling the office at (715)387-9410.
NYCAMH/NEC, a program of Bassett Healthcare, funded in part by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and the New York State Departments of Labor and Health, is enhancing agricultural and rural health by preventing and treating occupational injury and illness.